Thursday, April 25, 2013

Invasives: If you can’t beat them…eat them!

We are watching spring begin to green by day...almost minute by minute on some warm days. A walk in many woodlands can reveal a sad fact, that many of the first plants to green up in the spring are the non-native invasives. Drive along the roadways and peer into the woods: a haze of low lime green often signifies a serious infestation by Japanese Barberry. 
Garlic Mustard leaf. Photo by Beth Sullivan.
 The medians of our highways are filling with green already, and much of that is Multiflora Rose and Autumn Olive. Our hedgerows are thickening up with Honeysuckle and Winged Euonymous. All are non-native and invasive. That is part of their secret to success: green up quick, grow fast and out compete everything else. It is not to say that these plants have absolutely no value to wildlife; they do. Many of the dense thickets of these shrubs are perfect homes for many of the animals and birds we strive to protect like the New England Cotton tail. The berries of Multiflora Rose are eaten by many birds, and often through the winter a territorial mockingbird will take up residence guarding his stash of rose hips on a big bush. But that is how invasive plants get spread. Years ago, Porcelain berry was in every nursery and purchased for the beautiful berries it bears. Birds discovered the berries, gobbled them up and spread them far and wide. That vine has become Public Enemy # 1 on several Avalonia preserves, including the Knox Preserve. So we wage battle with whatever means, chemical or mechanical, that we need to use.
We have another option with one nasty invasive: we eat it!

Garlic Mustard is a biennial, herbaceous plant. At this time of year the seedlings are carpeting roadsides and moist woodland floors. The second year plants are already nearly 10 inches tall, fully leafed out and flower buds are beginning to form. They are the greenest, most visible plant in many local woods right now. They create a chemical in their root system that inhibits the growth of other plants around them. In this way they secure plenty of space for themselves and their offspring, to the detriment of all the other native plants in the ecosystem they share. They will even inhibit tree seeds, like acorns, from sprouting where there is a significant presence. They have a terrible impact.
Clearing invasives. Photo by Beth Sullivan.
This past weekend on a food segment on a local NBC station, a chef described a wonderful new way to use fresh local greens and the greens he used were Garlic Mustard. They have a definite garlic flavor, not at all unpleasant when eaten raw. (I have tried them.) He sautéed them in olive oil, wilted them like spinach, tossed them with onions and sea salt and then added feta cheese. They looked pretty good. The news anchor liked it, too. He suggested adding them to salads, making a pesto, even using them as a soup base.
Garlic Mustard plant. Photo by Beth Sullivan.

So get out and do yourself and the environment a favor. Eat your greens! Don’t use plants that grow along the road sides. They collect pollutants. Make sure you have identified the plant properly. Bruising a leaf does release a nice mild garlic odor. Don’t just harvest though. Rip out the whole plant!! Then harvest the tender green leaves to savor. It is actually best to bag and dispose of the plants if you can.
Maybe we can find a dessert made of Porcelain berries!
Written by Beth Sullivan.

Learn more about Garlic Mustard and Multiflora Rose at the Nation Invasive Species Information Center.
Learn more about Porcelain Berry at the National Park Service web site.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Knox Preserve Work Party Saturday, April 27

There will be a work day event at Knox Preserve, located off Route 1 in Stonington, this Saturday, April 27. 

The time is more or less 9 am to 3 pm. In addition to our Avalonia volunteers, there will also be a group of Connecticut College students attending as part of a course they are taking. They will be helping with our clean up, as well as working on individual project areas. We will need some "supervisors" for various projects.
The field at Knox Preserve in bloom. Photo by Beth Sullivan.

In addition, we have a group of younger, home school students, who have made a number of bluebird houses for us, and are looking forward to erecting some of them around Knox. More supervision needed! 
We have woody brush piles to remove from field areas for easier mowing. Lots of trees need to be untangled from invasive vines, there are still invasive patches along walls, but we have to be aware birds may be nesting already. 
We may need to cut some small cedars and make posts for bird houses. We will need to dig holes, too. 
We may also try a ceremonial lifting of the Martin House system as well. 
There are a few places the trails can be widened, and an area by a little pond on the lower trail by the tracks can be opened up a bit.  We have been given the OK from the dump to bring our brush, no charge. If anyone is willing to use their pick up or trailer for a trip-that would be great too. 

We need to girdle some oak trees and while that may take tools...not meant for college kids...they can help. 

If you can bring tools, PLEASE make sure they are LABELED with your name. The students really don't have many tools, so we need to share.  Bring gloves, eye protection. The students have a plan to break for lunch..guess we need to think about that too.

Our Water: Upstream & Downstream

Our Water: Upstream & Downstream
Sponsored by the Groton Public Library & Avalonia Land Conservancy

The Groton Public Library and Avalonia Land Conservancy will present a series of programs about our local brooks, rivers, and Long Island Sound at the Library during April.  As WE ALL LIVE DOWNSTREAM, plan to join us to learn more about the quality of our water and how it impacts both marine animals and us! Join us Tuesday, April 30 at 7pm at the Library for the third program:


Juliana Barrett, an Associate Extension Educator with CT Sea Grant at Avery Point, will illustrate the importance of coastal vegetative corridors and their significance in reducing the impacts of waves and storm surges. Her presentation will identify which salt spray tolerant native plants are most appropriate to plant in order to reduce the impact of runoff into Long Island Sound.
for more information, call the Groton Public Library at (860) 441-6750.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

There is something about yellow…….

Did you ever notice that it never quite feels like spring, until our world is dotted with yellow? In our yards we eagerly await the early daffodils and forsythia sprays. We don’t look forward to dandelions quite as much, but you have to admit their bright sunny yellow is a sign that spring really has arrived.
Bird lovers also await an early yellow: The American Goldfinch. This is not a true first of spring like returning migrants. Goldfinches remain here all winter, coming to our bird feeders. Through the fall and winter they are a soft, almost drab, olive color with dark wings and light white or cream wing bars. However, right about now, all of a sudden we spy a flash of bright yellow! The males have attained their breeding plumage, and are ready to show it off!

Photo by Rick Newton

Many birds change plumage when breeding season approaches. Warblers are notably confusing to birders as they change back and forth over the year. However, most of our local resident birds keep the same plumage year round. Think of Chickadees, Titmice, Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, House Finches, and Blue Jays that visit our feeders through all seasons. Even Cardinals; while males and females are significantly different from one another, each remains pretty much the same throughout the year. It is our Goldfinch that changes the most dramatically.
In the fall, the males begin to get mottled looking, their feathers seem to look a little raggedy as the duller color replaces their bright yellow. During the winter the males and females look pretty much the same except for some subtle differences. Many people believe their “Wild Canaries”, their Goldfinches, have left with the other migrants. Not so.
It is curious that we don’t really notice the males changing back to yellow. Do they hide? Are they embarrassed by their disheveled appearance? No, not at all, though you have to keep your eyes open. It is just that when the day comes, and they appear at our feeder in that glorious bright spring yellow, accented by black wings and black cap; it is a stunning sight. It is hard to believe they have been here all along. A sight for sore eyes that have been counting signs of spring!
Photo by Rick Newton

Goldfinches are birds that use many habitats. They can be most frequently found in field and shrub habitats, as well as around our back yards. They are a species very dependent on seeds so in all seasons you can look for them in weedy grassy fields and hedgerows. Check the fields at the Knox Preserve , among other Avalonia properties, for the bright yellow finch perched atop a grass seed head or flower stem. They are one of the latest of the bird species to nest in the summer. They look for the downy seeds of milkweed, thistle and others to line their nests, and their young hatch when seeds are most abundant in later August.
Written by Beth Sullivan.

Learn more about the American Goldfinch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Big Project for a Little Bunny

If you live in SE CT, you may remember reading articles about local projects to restore habitat for the New England Cottontail (NEC) . From Voluntown and Pachaug Forest, to a North Stonington Sportsmen’s club, this little rabbit is having an impact….and now on Avalonia in Stonington as well.
These rabbits are not the commonly seen lawn bunnies which are the non-native Eastern Cottontail. 

YouTube video of the New England Cottontail Rabbit.

The rabbits in the news are our native ones and, due to competition and loss of habitat, they are candidates for being listed as endangered. As Connecticut has aged, farmlands reverted to shrublands which the rabbits liked. However, further age has turned the shrublands into forests, and the forested landscape does not provide the food and shelter necessary for the NEC. An impenetrable tangle of low growth, briers and vines that deter our visits, is precisely what the Cottontails need.
Many State (DEEP), Federal(USFWS, USDA & NRCS) and local (Avalonia LandConservancy) agencies have come together to support and fund a project on the Peck and Callahan Preserves in the northern portion of Stonington. These lands are deep in the center of a core of mature forests, and until now, have been barely thought about and were not accessible to the public because of their location. A population of the NEC has been located not far from these preserves, which are also intersected by a power line that, when cut to provide access and maintenance of the lines, also creates the shrub and young forest habitat needed by the rabbit.

Map of New England Cottontail Restoration Focus Areas.

It has been over a year since the project began as an idea, then a plan, and finally a collaboration. Many countless hours were spent on the ground to survey and study the area, to measure and mark boundaries, buffer and protect wetlands, and to untangle the funding web. We are almost ready to begin the active phase. In order to create NEC habitat, trees will have to be cut. A certified harvester will begin in mid-April to create a shelter-wood cutting. Some trees of high value for wildlife will be left standing; the rest will be removed and large brush piles will be created. In just months, stumps will sprout. Sun will reach the ground, and new shrubs and fruiting plants and berry bushes and brier vines will begin to take over and thus provide an open invitation to the rabbits to move into the area and find what they need to establish a population: food and shelter.

It is not just the rabbits, though, that we seek to support. The new habitat will support over 47 other species of birds, mammals, insects, reptiles and amphibians that rely on the same conditions. Over the next years we, and other scientists, will visit the site, monitor plant growth, and record wildlife sightings.
We will continue to post about the progress of the project and provide photos and updates as we move forward. “Stay Tuned” for more!

Written by Beth Sullivan.
Find out more about the New England Cottontail Rabbit

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Our Water: Upstream & Downstream
Sponsored by the Groton Public Library & Avalonia Land Conservancy

The Groton Public Library and Avalonia Land Conservancy will present a series of programs about our local brooks, rivers, and Long Island Sound at the Library during April.  As WE ALL LIVE DOWNSTREAM, plan to join us to learn more about the quality of our water and how it impacts both marine animals and us! Join us Tuesday April 16 at 7pm at the Library for the second program:
Inland Water Quality: How It Affects Shellfish & Marine Habitats            
Tessa Getchis, an aquaculture extension specialist at the Connecticut Sea Grant program at UConn Avery Point, will present a historical account of shellfisheries and marine aquaculture and how inland water quality affects our marine habitats, and in particular, our shellfish resources. She will focus on how these resources contribute to the ecology, culture, recreation, food and commerce in southeastern Connecticut.
Free, no registration required. For more information call the Library at 860 441 6750.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Mourning Cloak: Another First

Butterflies are funny creatures. They seem so fragile and ethereal, yet they are quite durable and adaptable. In grade school we learn of their life cycle: Egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult that starts it all over again with egg laying. Here in the Northeast, most of our butterflies overwinter in the chrysalis stage, often protected by camouflage attached to a stick or stem or buried amid the leaves on the ground. They emerge as spring warms up, and they “know” there is an ample supply of flowers ready to supply the nectar they need for sustenance. By the time they are ready to lay eggs, there is also plenty of herbaceous material, leaves and grasses of specific types, available for their caterpillars to feast on and grow.

We have one outstanding exception, another FIRST - Butterfly of Spring: The Mourning Cloak. It is a good sized butterfly, with a deep mahogany color on its wings, which are edged with a band of creamy yellow. It is not hard to identify, there are no others like it.
                        Photo by Rick Newton
Take a walk in the woods on a warm spring afternoon, and you may be surprised to see something take flight, then quickly disappear. Look again and you may spot it take off, flitting quickly in the sunlight before coming to rest on a tree trunk or on the ground. These butterflies overwintered as adults. They hibernated in cracks and crevices, in tree holes and even rocky outcrops. They are roused by the warmth of these early spring days, fly about, but will go dormant again if the weather turns back to cold for a spell. This has already happened several times this year. But what do they survive on? There are no flowers out so early in the spring, and surely none in the woods. The answer is in the trees themselves. The butterflies rely on tree sap instead of nectar. After all the wind and storms this winter, there are abundant broken twigs. The warm days bring sap flowing upward into the trees, the same conditions that those who tap Sugar Maples for their syrup look forward to, and when the sap hits a break in a stem, it begins to drip. The sweet sap is perfect food for the butterfly. By mid-April temperatures are more consistent, and the butterflies remain more active. By May and June, their host food plants, willows, including pussy willows, have leafed out. When the butterflies lay their eggs on the host plant, the caterpillars emerge and are voracious! Many eggs are deposited on the same plant, and a large hatch can really chew a lot of leaves. The caterpillars are black with red spots and black spikes. They will go through their metamorphosis during the summer, and by later summer and fall, the newly emerged adults reappear on the scene to gather nutrition prior to their winter hibernation. And so the cycle continues.
                                  Photo used under creative commons from wanderingnome

The First Mourning Cloaks were out a few weeks ago. We saw one today, 4/2, on the Peck Preserve in Stonington. Look for them as you walk the wooded trails in the warm spring sunlight.

An added Bonus: I know first-hand that the Monarchs have arrived in South Florida. We still have many weeks to go before the first ones are spotted here in CT. Spring is making its way up the coast.

Written by Beth Sullivan.

To learn more about the mourning cloak visit Butterflies and Moths of North America.